U.S. Supreme Court Reject Retroactive Application of Immigration Laws to Conviction before 1996

On March 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision, Vartelas v. Holder, No. 10-1211, rejecting the retroactive application of a provision of an immigration laws passed by Congress in 1996 that has prevented many lawful permanent residents (LPRs) from returning to the United States after a trip abroad.  Citing the “deeply rooted presumption” against applying new laws retroactively, the Court ruled 6-3 that LPRs who temporarily leave the country cannot be denied readmission on account of criminal convictions that occurred before the law took effect.  

The Justice Department argued that LPRs with certain criminal convictions may be barred from re-entering the United States any time they leave the country—even if the law in effect at the time of their guilty pleas did not make them eligible for deportation or ineligible for reentry to the United States. The Supreme Court properly rejected this argument, noting that the government’s interpretation effectively prevented such LPRs from ever leaving the country.

In sum, before Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996, lawful permanent residents who had committed a crime of moral turpitude could return from brief trips abroad without applying for admission to the United States. However, after enactment of IIRIRA n 1996, lawful permanent residents who had committed a crime of moral turpitude were required to reapply for admission to the U.S. and the crime of moral turpitude (even though committed before the 1996 law) would place the lawful permanent resident into removal proceedings.  This U.S. Supreme Court decision concludes that a returning lawful permanent resident cannot be placed in removal proceedings for a conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude that was committed before the 1996 IIRIRA laws.

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